So, I had planned on doing a long detailed rant on why returns were killing publishers (specifically me) that was filled with glorious numbers and might help authors and aspiring authors better understand a less well-known aspect of the book business. However, before I started, I ran across this charming post about Bookseller Math. I decided to put off the returns post until tomorrow and instead write a companion post called Publisher Math. I present it now:

Publisher Math
By Me

Like booksellers, publishers are inundated by numbers all day long — and I’m not talking about sales or returns figures or that number on the bottom of a P&L that determines whether or not a book should be published. (And yes, all books no matter how brilliant, all come down to that single number in the end.) I mean that we also have our own mathematical way of looking at the world. If life were a university, then all the people in the publishing field would have to take a year long comprehensive course entitled Publishers’ Math 101. The units would include:

  • Statistics (Law of Averages) — As you learn in statistics everything tends to trend to the middle of the pack. (Hence the infamous bell curve in grading.) You may have a few bestsellers and a few real duds, but most books fall somewhere in the middle. And for publishers this means you always have to remember the Law of Averages. What would the “average” reader like? What does the “average” kid prefer? What will the “average” sales be every month? What are the books “average” shelf life? Is it any wonder that many books in the marketplace are what we consider to be average?
  • Trigonometry — When I take my sales numbers and have Excel make fancy graphs, they always create pretty little sines and cosines. Like waves, sales have troughs and peaks. Have a particularly successful marketing push? Get a peak. However, it’s always followed by a trough. Always.
  • Negative numbers — The amount a publisher makes after returns come back. See tomorrow.
  • Fractals — Put simply, a fractal is something that when broken into smaller pieces, those smaller pieces look remarkably like the whole. Because of this, fractals are considered “infinitely complex.” Is there a better way to describe what an outsider sees when they look at the publishing industry than infinitely complex?
  • Chaos Theory — Although most evident during large trade shows like BEA or ALA, chaos can invade at any point in the publishing process. And sometimes even the smallest things (an extra dash in the ISBN of an ARC) can grind everything into a screeching halt.
  • Zero-sum — What a publisher feels like at the end of a book’s life (especially with a book with high sales but high returns). You haven’t really lost much but it doesn’t feel like you’ve gained much either.

Publisher Math can be a hard thing to sit down and face. Like Bookseller Math, it can be full of low percentages and negative numbers. It’s actually a wonder, after running the numbers, that there are any publishers at all.

© Copyright 2006-2011 Madeline Smoot. All rights reserved.
May be excerpted and duplicated for educational purposes.
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